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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

A Teacher's Guide to Generation X Parents

How to work with well-meaning but demanding moms and dads.
By Susan Gregory Thomas
Credit: Jessica Hische

Not long ago, administrators at a small private school in New York City were reorganizing two mixed-grade elementary classrooms. Looking at the third grade, they determined that one girl was particularly well suited to switch from one class to the other: She was adaptable and genial and loved working with teachers and friends. The administrators called the girl's mother, assuming she would be flattered.

Wrong. The mother was distraught: Her daughter had started at the school only last year! She would be leaving friends in the other classroom! She had enrolled her daughter in private school for its stability and intimacy -- not for disruption! The administrators didn't understand what had been happening at home!

The mother, in tears, needed to have a conference -- now. Educators were stunned. Who was this mother?

That would be me, and here's why: I am a Generation X parent, a member of a demographic that has been making teachers' and school administrators' jobs a pain in the butt for more than a decade.

The Pendulum Swings

Born between 1965 and 1979, Generation X counts for about 48 million people in the United States, a group that's a sociological sentence fragment compared with its predecessors, the baby boomers (1946–1964), and with Generation Y (1980–2001), which followed it.

But size, as they say, isn't everything -- as parents, I daresay you teachers have known who we are from day one. In preschool, we're the ones anxiously arranging developmentally appropriate playdates for our Siouxsie-and-the-Banshees-T-shirt-clad three-year-olds. In kindergarten, we're frantic that other parents' children are starting to read cat and rat, while our Ruby and Dylan are still having trouble identifying lowercase letters. We think the gold-star system and its ilk are archaic and punitive, and we want to have a meeting to present our suggestions for alternative achievement systems.

By grade school, we're demanding to know why the math program is not challenging enough for our child. We email our complaints about the seating chart. We openly deride the arts instruction and may rally other parents to the point of a coup d'état. By middle school, our kids have schedules and professional support staffs that resemble those of corporate lawyers. Look out, high school: We're coming.

Why are we so obnoxious, self-righteous, implacable? When I was working on a book about very young children and the marketing industry (Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds), I learned more than I'd ever wanted to know about Generation X as parents.

But the most important discovery was relearning a truism from Psychology 101: If you want to know what's unhealed from your own childhood, have children. Key to decoding our parental behavior is understanding that we are, albeit often unconsciously, doing for our children what no one did for us.

For starters, we are ferocious advocates for our kid. "One of the chief things I've noticed is the demand for power from these parents," says Betty Staley, program director of Waldorf high school teacher education at Rudolf Steiner College, in Fair Oaks, California. "They demand to be involved in making decisions for their kid -- even interviewing potential teachers -- regardless of what is good for the group."

A Neglected Generation

A little background here: Generation X, according to a 2004 study conducted by marketing-strategy and research firm Reach Advisors, "went through its all-important formative years as one of the least parented, least nurtured generations in U.S. history." Little wonder: Half of all Gen Xers' parents are divorced. We were the first to be raised in record numbers in day care, and some 40 percent of us were latchkey kids.

We've been taking care of ourselves since we started going to school, and we don't trust authority figures, because they weren't trustworthy when we were growing up. Our parents didn't know what was going on at school, and our teachers didn't know what was going on at home. We're not going to let this happen to our children -- not even for a second. We'll do whatever we have to do to make sure our kids get what they need.

"They'll go over your head if they don't get the results they want from you," says Anita Thomas, who taught science in a public school in Beaufort, South Carolina. That makes sense, says Lisa Chamberlain, author of Slackonomics: Generation X in the Age of Creative Destruction. "Anything that smacks of bureaucratic red tape or protocol is an irritant," she explains. "We had to fend for ourselves, which is great if you're an entrepreneur, but not when you're a parent."

This also may explain why Gen X parents are so quick to whip together a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation to show you how to reorganize your classroom, even the entire school. Remember, we're the technology-revolution generation, and we're familiar with making presentations in front of venture capitalists.

That kind of know-it-all-ism makes sense, too. "Boomer parents assumed that since they had turned out fine, their kids would, too," continues Chamberlain. "Gen X doesn't have that assumption -- we've seen what it's like to have the rug pulled out from underneath us."

Indeed, economic collapse has punctuated every milestone of our adult lives. When we graduated from high school in the 1980s, Wall Street fell. When we graduated from college, the first Bush recession made jobs impossibly scarce. When we started having children, the Nasdaq crashed. When we finally bought our own homes, the housing bubble burst.

The Good Fight

We can also be a little snotty. Another common teacher complaint is that Gen X parents rebel against worksheet-based homework, or kvetch that the curriculum isn't challenging, rich, or imaginative enough.

"A lot of Gen Xers have this artisanal affectation, which comes from having sought out the margins of mass culture in independent bookstores, record shops, politics," says Jeff Gordinier, editor at large of Details magazine and author of X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking. "For many Gen Xers, the education that defines us is the one we got for ourselves, outside of school."

As adults, however, we seem to want schools to do everything: provide our children with rigorous academic instruction, socialize them flawlessly, and offer them the rich cultural experiences we value so much. We're angry and disappointed when they fall short of our impossible expectations.

Poignantly, at the heart of all Gen X parental behavior is probably what it is for all neglected children. "Generation X is looking to teachers and schools to heal childhood wounds," observes Waldorf educator Betty Staley. It may not be fair, but it's true. We want you to pay attention to us, to take us seriously -- to give us your time.

In the end, the school administrators kept my daughter in her original classroom. But it wasn't because I'd threatened a tantrum. I had, they said, given them information that helped them make the decision in "her best interest." In other words, we listened to each other.

Solve for X

With all this context, knowing more or less why we act the way we do, here are a few tips on how to cope with our lot:

Listen to Us

As insufferable as we can be at first contact, listen to us first. We may look and act like adults, but there is a part of us that still feels like a neglected kid inside. Paying attention to our concerns may be a little more time consuming, but the effort will pay off. We're loyal allies, and we love to be helpful.

Include Us

Invite us to teach in the classroom for an afternoon. Or assign students free-choice homework one night a week, to be completed with a parent. Many Gen Xers are genuine intellectuals with interesting ideas and hobbies. We'd love to share them!

Put Us to Work

We share your passion for making schools more successful learning environments. Besides letting us help you in class or share a homework assignment with our kids, harness our energy by asking us to help plan a field trip or do background research or otherwise help you prepare a class project.

Give Us Limits

"I let parents know that I'm always willing to listen to their concerns, but that there are certain issues that are negotiable and others that just aren't," says Shelly Wolf Scott, an administrator at Brooklyn's Rivendell School. Parents are not allowed to alter their children's classroom placement, curriculum, or administrative decisions.

They are, however, permitted to offer information about their child that the school might not know and that could assist in making such decisions. "This group of parents seems to respond well to those boundaries," she says.

Work with Us

"Parents don't seem to know how incredibly carefully all teachers and administrators think about their children," says Lynn Levinson, assistant director of Upper School (and a parent of two) at the Maret School, in Washington, DC. "I always reassure them that I know how many conversations have revolved around these children and their classmates, so I know that it's the right decision, even if I'm not happy with it as a parent."

Susan Gregory Thomas has written for U.S. News & World Report and the Washington Post.

Comments (66)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Dee's picture

"[Generation -X] went through its all-important formative years as one of the least parented, least nurtured generations in U.S. history." Why did the author quote a marketing study for this article?

Just to be clear, the likelihood of Generation-X authentically being the "least" nurtured in the history of the USA is 0% ... I urge the author to remember that prior to the 20th century most children worked, often in back-breaking factory jobs or on a family farm, as did both of their parents. The "stay at home" mom is an anomaly and a luxury known only to the post-industrial/developed world, the nurturing father, pretty much the same thing. Kids who were born in the 70s had lifestyles akin to that of the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers in terms of quality of life and material wealth.

I contend that it is indulgence and self-obsession rather than wounds caused by being "latch key kids" or whatever that have created these entitled, annoying, indulgent parents.

Dee Costigan's picture

i applaud LA Teacher Of Your Kids. It is exactly how i felt after reading this. i am also a Gen-Xer and have been a teacher for the last 15 years. i work in a mixed age classroom in a Cooperative school. All parents spend a day a month as the classroom aide and are very involved in our school. i can only share from my own experience how difficult this is. While the wonderful involvement serves to be all inclusive, i have not had a parent yet who hasn't made at least 3 'special' requests, and none will ever accept a negative response. (even with profound and thoughtful explanation) They say they understand and then ask when their request will be met. (or they just behave as if it were met) While this 'opinion' of an article may offer some explanation to some extent, it is not an excuse. And it seems the author uses statistical facts to excuse some terrible and demanding behavior. i notice she doesn't reference herself admitting to this or using this new self-awareness to learn and correct herself, just more of a 'this is who i am, accept it, and give me what i want' attitude.
i was also a latchkey kid after my parents divorced, and responsible with the traditional 'mother's chores' of managing the house and caring for and raising 4 younger siblings. i am a parent of 3 young adults, 2 still in college, and are proud of the people they are. Never would they be so disrespectful, inconsiderate, or demanding of people. These hurts and experiences did help mold the type of parenting style for me, but not in the manner described here. i looked at what was wrong and decided to right it, not hang onto it for the purpose of awarding oneself the excuse to behave poorly and teach our children to do the same.
Although i certainly understood the authors intent to give us the why, and appreciate the stats, i agree the article was more of another avenue to allow this person to excuse herself for bad behavior. i certainly wouldn't want this person's words to represent me.

Chris Myers's picture

The article is dead on about GenX'rs. Boomers failed largely and are failures today. Old men and women trying to be 20 whilst dealing with the regret of past mistakes. My mom and Dad eventually came around and woke up and made things much better (mom is a music teacher) While we are fiercely loyal to our kids. I was a single dad for a long time. We do try to balance the kids in some fashion. There is just so much available to kids now and advertising sells directly to the kids not the parents as in times of old. We did grow up with 3 channels ya know. Now we spend all our time fending the world off from the kids and trying to keep them from growing up too fast. We had fun as kids and didnt care about sex.
I hope that we as parents are making some type of return to morals of old instead of compounding the mistakes of Boomers. And yes Boomers have controlled the finances, jobs etc all our lives. But hehe.... your gettin long in the tooth and we have to pay for you now........... Just as well as you did Grandma.........makes ya think huh?

Chris Myers's picture

How many times growing up did I hear "Kids are resiliant!!!!" They are NOT and it aint fun. The only stable thing in my life was my 75 year old grandma. She was a HillBilly woman with an 8th grade education at best. She taught more in the Garden than any shrink in the building could have. I can be an expert but that doesnt mean I know anything in the real world. This is what ticks me off. Dr's get to practice medicine and Lawyers practice law. And psych's practice on the rest of us poor fools.

me's picture

As a member of Gen X and a teacher I have to voice what a disservice these parents are doing to their children. I have taught for 13 years and each year we seem to see a dramatic increase in entitled parents and their self absorbed, self-righteous children. I have a group now how feels that their children are "indigo" and therefore are above reproach, homework or discipline. I can't get over the whiny emails both myself and my team gets over the smallest of things. Parents lash out first and THEN gather information that they should have done in the first place. It really shouldn't be your child's teacher's responsibility to sort through a parent's temper tantrums and issues before any true communication is accomplished. Instead, why don't these Gen Xer's use the independence and internal fortitude that many of us had to acquire to better our children's lives in stead of setting them up for failure by having them falsely think that everyone gets what they want just because they want it.

Observer's picture

Susan's article hit the nail on the head in so many ways in giving supporting details of why we GEN X parents act the way we do about our children. I'm born in 1967, latch key, yadda yadda, definitely had a chip my shoulder growing up. Our children were born in 1997 and 1999. Super busy, over scheduled, living and loving life. However, many of those details she gives about our parental inclinations towards our children describe a generation of parents who irritatingly and obnoxiously go about the business of reaching our goals for our children. Many of the Gen X parents are irritating and obnoxious towards their children's teachers. I see it and hear it everyday with my peers, and definitely when I volunteer daily at the public school. Gen X parents don't have to act that way. Who wants to deal with parents like that or anyone like that? Do teachers have time to listen to all of that belly aching? I think Pamela Mari is correct with her statements in her post. Gen X parents should be problem solving in a better manner. Gen Xers do need to look at the big picture, backwards and forwards. If we are setting our kids for a "world of hurt" later, lets figure out a way to stop that outcome. I don't want to set up my children for failure. Hey, Gen X....when you look around and analyze your life does it look that bad? Gen X seems to have gotten by "in spite of it all". The beauty of the baby boomers is that they don't blab all over the place about how things were when times were tough. Bottom line, tough times don't last, but tough people do.

rick herman's picture

This article explains what is going on with youth sports today. Most parents feel that their child is going to be a professional athlete and are very vocal about how great their child is and why he/she should be playing more. Kids are expected to pick a sport that they are going to excel in by 9 years old. The parents will hire trainers to train their kids at 9 years old. Whatever happened to playing a variety of sports or the idea that kids play sports to have fun. Winning is not in the top ten reasons that kids play sports. Winning is all about what the parents want and these parents are the ones that are coaching the kids. When did it change that you were given a trophy after every season in every sport. These kids do not know what it feels like or how to react to the concept of losing and they are under extreme pressure to win. What are we setting our kids up for? How can they succeed if they can't fail?

rick herman's picture

This article explains what is going on with youth sports today. Most parents feel that their child is going to be a professional athlete and are very vocal about how great their child is and why he/she should be playing more. Kids are expected to pick a sport that they are going to excel in by 9 years old. The parents will hire trainers to train their kids at 9 years old. Whatever happened to playing a variety of sports or the idea that kids play sports to have fun. Winning is not in the top ten reasons that kids play sports. Winning is all about what the parents want and these parents are the ones that are coaching the kids. When did it change that you were given a trophy after every season in every sport. These kids do not know what it feels like or how to react to the concept of losing and they are under extreme pressure to win. What are we setting our kids up for? How can they succeed if they do not know how to fail.

Robby D's picture

I am an Assistant Principal at the PK level. I've been a teacher at the elementary, intermediate, middle school, & high school level. I've been a coach for both boys and girls at the middle school and high school level. More importantly, I am the quintessential Generation X'er with two boys in high school. I think that Generation X needs to stop making excuses for itself and get to work. My generation also needs to stop smothering their children. I understand the public school system is not perfect. I understand the teachers provided are not always the best. Well you know what, that is exactly what life looks like. Sometimes you get the best hostess at a restaurant, and sometimes you don't. The trick is to learn to deal with it. Conflict resolution. Generation X'er parents need to stop resolving their child's conflicts and let them deal with it themselves. We are/have created a generation dependent on us, the parents. Just how are they going to take care of the world of tomorrow?

Dianne P.'s picture

While I am sorry that Gen X parents had it so tough when they were younger, they need to seek therapy, not spoil their kids. Here is my take on the article: I don't want to understand why you are as bad mannered as you are. If you know why, then suck it up and straighten out. Do you realize that all your "devotion" to your children is actually hurting them? Your children can not cope with failure because you won't allow it to happen. They are completely unimaginative because you have never given them time to dream and play without your intervention or direction. They can't solve social issues because you always mediated. Educators are trying to make your children independent thinkers and problem solvers, and you are making that impossible to achieve because you can't keep your hands off their projects and homework. If you don't like what is going on, you demand to change it without thinking about how it is really affecting your children in the long run. What will happen when your children go to work and you can't boss the boss around or your child will get fired? Advice: Let your children work hard, let them fail, let them make a choice between one thing or another as they can't always have both, let them get their hands dirty for a change. You are crippling your children and weakening the future of this country as a result--weak children grow up as weak adults. Just because your parents made mistakes does not give you the right to behave inappropriately as well. You are just as bad....just in a different way. http://www.arky.org/newsltr/poems/buttrfly.htm check out this link. The poem has a spiritual overtone, but the message is right on.

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